By MONICA RATNARAJ
In the middle of Times Square, just one subway stop away from the Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) campus, sits the Church of Scientology in New York. Scientology as an institution is famously controversial, boasting scandals about their “cultish” brainwashing and exploitation of their members, corrupt money practices and harassing of individuals who leave the church or speak out against it. Intrigued, I thought it would be worthwhile to see it myself, and I brought along my friend Claire Holmes, FCLC ’19, for moral support. I had done my research and knew that the church offered daily “personality tests,” no appointment required. Stepping into the building, my immediate reaction was that I was in a nice hotel lobby from the future. The décor was part art deco, part space-age science fiction movie—beautiful, polished, and completely welcoming. The Church of Scientology is known for its vast hordes of money coming from wealthy church-members’ donations (the most notable of which include actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta), and this fact was present in the building’s location and size.
My second reaction was that the Church of Scientology was very, well, scientological. There were copies of the infamous book “Dianetics,” the self-help book that started the church, lining the walls of the place, all of them available for purchase. Looking around the lobby, I noticed the quotes on the walls from the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard and copies of different books and DVDs promoting the science of Dianetics. Portraits of him on the walls confirmed what I knew of how the church famously viewed their founder—a prophet, leader and deity. Unfortunately, John Travolta was not in attendance.
We were immediately greeted by a friendly woman at the front desk, while another man in a nice suit got us started on our paperwork for the personality test. I had written down a fake name, address and number on the questionnaire because I didn’t want my mailbox to be overloaded with Scientology pamphlets, (Claire forgot to do this step and I suspect she’s about to be getting a lot of emails). We were handed the test, and I instantly felt like I was about to take the SATs again, as the long booklet of questions was accompanied by a scantron sheet with 200 tiny bubbles to fill out. Most of the questions were general personality questions you would expect from a “personality test” like ones found on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)—“Are you comfortable in a crowd?” “Do you find it easy to express your opinion?” However, a lot of the questions were less ordinary. Some of them, like “Would you take on a new path in life easily?,” seemed to my suspicious mind like indicators on how susceptible someone might be to join the church. Others were existentially confounding in an unsettling way, like “Does life sometimes seem unreal?” or, even more unsettling, “Do you sometimes feel that no one really loves you?”
I’ve read a bit about the church, and, like many people, enjoyed the 2015 HBO Documentary on the subject “Going Clear,” which details the church’s strategies in essentially preying on vulnerable people in order to exploit their financial resources. After taking the test, we were lead upstairs to another lobby-like floor to wait for our results, and a video ran explaining Dianetics. The video showed a woman dealing with the loss of her husband. It depicted how Dianetics and the Church of Scientology were able to make her feel happy again, and I was again suspicious of the church’s infamous tactics of targeting the most vulnerable individuals.
As we waited for our results we were taken into a small viewing room where we were shown an absurdly high quality short film on the virtues of the church. After Claire left to get her results (you are taken into a private room), I was left to make awkward conversation with the church employees. The man running our tests through the computer was exceedingly friendly, making casual small talk as I waited for my results. I didn’t know if I was projecting my own preconceived notions of the church onto the individuals administering the test, but there was a quality about their excessive friendliness that didn’t sit quite right with me. Claire, after we had gotten our test results, described them as “creepily intense,” which I couldn’t disagree with.
Before Claire went into the test, I let her know that they may tell her negative things about herself in order to convince her that she needed Scientology, and that was exactly what I was expecting as I sat down to get my results. A woman handed me a chart which apparently described my personality and interpreted the results for me. My results were: I am cold, withdrawn, overly critical and unstable. The only cure for my glaring personality defects? Scientology, of course.
I actually was let off a little easier than Claire; going over my results didn’t last too long and I generally found the whole process slightly amusing. In the reading of Claire’s results, they told her a lot of things that were just categorically untrue. They told her that she had low self-esteem, no ambition and that she is not warm and cannot see the best in people. According to Claire, “When we were going over my results, my person kept trying to tell me [that] I didn’t have worth or there were things wrong with me, and every time I objected, or hesitated, she almost tried to gaslight me, in a sense. So that was creepy and just very disturbing and unsettling.” I had also noticed that when I was receiving my results, the reader attempted to reinforce the idea that I had these faults, even if I disagreed.
I went into the church thinking it would be an exciting experience and left feeling unsettled. If this was what the church was telling us, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were telling their members. What faults they convinced people they had, and what answers they promised the church could give. I wondered what they told Travolta.